I did something this weekend that renewed my faith in this country, and made me feel great about being an American. I reached out to my "neighbor" about this election - although the neighbor lived 1000 miles away.
I went to Gallipolis, Ohio - a village on the Ohio River, where Ohio borders West Virginia. I took myself from New York City into the "battleground" of this election, and listened and talked to the people who are going to decide it. (As most of you know, there are 6 battleground states... and in most of those states, there are a handful of counties and precincts that are going to sway this election.)
Gallipolis is one of the few places in America that has not been "homogenized." Just when you think that everywhere in America looks like everywhere else, this town doesn't look OR sound like it. For one thing, they pronounce the name of their town "Ga-lip-Police." (The locals, of course, are allowed to mispronounce it "gallipolie" or "gallipol-es"... you would be well-advised to say "gallop-police.")
The next town is called Rio Grande, and it's pronounced "R-eye-oh Grand." As the Mayor of Rio Grande told me "We have our own language in these parts."
Political campaigns tend to forget this part of America. The Obama organizer in Gallia County (a Harvard senior from rural Connecticut who gave up his first semester for Obama) told me "This is where Gore and Kerry lost Ohio." When someone from a campaign walks up to someone's door, there's surprise, then a little bit of ranting (as in "well, finally someone's listening, let me hit them with everything you've got"), and then ... real talk. "Sit down on the porch" talk.
I spent my time talking to what the Obama campaign and Gallia County's organizers call "persuadables" - voters who had been Hillary supporters and needed a little extra work, Independent voters, or Republicans who at one time or another had been involved in a Democrat's campaign. And I had some of the best conversations about jobs, gas prices, Iraq, race, religion and abortion that I've ever had in my life. They were free from rancor, from easy "sound bites," and from the usual political rhetoric you see the pundits slinging every day on the air.
I walked for two days, knocked on over 100 doors and spoke to over 50 voters. By Sunday, I'd "gone rogue" and went beyond the "persuadables" list, talking to anyone who was sitting on the front porch. Even the McCain people were cheerful when they told me that I was wasting my breath.
A lot of the comment about this year's election has centered on a powerful shift in the voting base. I think I saw some of that this weekend. People here tend to be lifelong party members. If you've been a Republican, it's gut-wrenching to say you're going to vote for Barack Obama. But I heard it. On the other hand, I also talked with a woman who was SO Democratic that she once forbade her son to play Abraham Lincoln in the school pageant, and she told me she might not pull the lever for Obama because of his switch on public financing and his support of FISA.
They are rewriting their political alliances out of a life-and-death sense that this country has gone horribly wrong. When you've been paying $50 a month for gasoline to drive to work, and now it's $50 a week, that's real. When you're losing your job because the competition is overseas, and you know in your heart it's because we're just not competitive for so many reasons... that's bad. When your kids are supposed to be educated in the "No Child Left Behind" program, but the school can't afford the supplies or the teachers prescribed by the program, you start wondering what's really wrong.
But I didn't hear simple answers from them - part of that is because there's a real distrust of Washington and Government in general. But part of it is that they know there are no simple answers. A lot of them are going to vote for Barack because they hate the way things are going now... but they also say he's "the lesser of two evils." The way things have been going over the past decade has played havoc on their lives.
This is cattle country and trucker country. (The main reaction I got to telling people I was from New York was "Oh, that George Washington Bridge... it's 100 bucks for a semi to cross!") We talked about how bad the highways in this country are, and the railroads, and how the country can't even ship its own goods any more.
This is ironworker country. People are losing their jobs to foreign trade, and they know it. But one ironworker told me how he and his buddies had erected a giant "Iron Barack" statue outside their plant.
I had some amazing moments -- I knocked on the door of a couple from India who will become citizens on the 18th of this month, and had the great privilege of handing them voter registration cards.
I had some weird moments... one guy told me how afraid he was that Barack, the first Black President, would get assassinated... "And it'll all be on me." Another woman told me that there wasn't any reason to vote, that the End of Days was coming. I tried to convince her that, just as an insurance policy for her grandkids, she might want to cast a vote for Barack.
I talked to a Gulf War (the first one) vet who told me "I had Osama right in my sights... then they called us off... this is all about a fight between two oil families, the Bushes and the Bin Ladens." He'll vote Obama... as long as I convinced him that registering to vote only made him liable to do jury duty once in a while.
There are a LOT of Hillary supporters here. For the most part, they'll end up voting for Barack - but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done to get them to understand that Barack and Hillary share the same goals.
No one I spoke to was buying Sarah Palin. The women turn their nose up at her (and these are the hard-scrabble types Sarah's supposed to appeal to). "How dare they think we'll vote for her just because she's a woman!" A lifelong Republican took Palin's nomination as proof that "McCain has been bought by the Right Wing of the party... I used to like him."
Like I said, it was an amazing weekend. And you can do it, too...
Go to mybarackobama.com. Register. Search for caucuses and "out of town" groups in the battleground states. You'll find events hosted by Obama organizers in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Ohio, and New Hampshire.
Call the organizer up. Introduce yourself. If there really isn't enough going on for you to come out for, they'll tell you. (A number of Pennsylvania and Ohio organizers did just that.) But if you're lucky, you'll find someone like Seth Bannon, the Gallipolis organizer who was my host this weekend.
Most places can put you up for a night or two - there are plenty of Obama supporters everywhere who would welcome you. Or, enjoy the wonders of the Super 8! (They'll leave the light on for you, and if you leave your button on, you might have the experience I had of recruiting a new volunteer for the campaign.)
And start walking, start knocking, start talking. You WILL make a difference. I went to the Volunteer Fireman's Festival in Rio Grande on Saturday night, and Seth and I were "celebrities" (but not like Paris Hilton, I promise) because we had traveled all the way to this part of Ohio to talk about Barack Obama.
The old "organizer's handbook" says that every three people you talk to equals a vote. In some parts of this country, the election turned on 8-10 votes... precincts turn to counties turn to states... It all adds up.
We can win this election! But we're in for the fight of our lives... and this is one way to go to the battlegrounds.